Starbucks is wasting no time addressing the uproar after two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia store last week for the crime of being black in public. Their actions have been, thus far, honest and inspiring.
“I’m embarrassed, ashamed. I think what occurred was reprehensible at every single level. I think I take it very personally as everyone in our company does and we’re committed to making it right,” executive chairman Howard Schulz this today on “CBS This Morning.”
Schultz joined Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson and members of their leadership team in Philadelphia this week, to meet with employees and members of the community, the company said in a statement.
Their first official response will be a radical act of exclusion, but this time, for all Starbucks customers. The company will be closing some 8,200 company-owned stores and corporate offices for several hours on May 29 for company-wide racial bias training – that’s 175,000 people. It’s hard not to appreciate the symbolic elegance, and the multi-million price tag, of a nation-wide time out.
The company has also been casting a wide net, looking for expertise on the local and national levels.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund is one of the experts who will be advising the company on its bias mitigation efforts.
She signed on to help because she was convinced that the company’s response was bigger than public relations. “I was interested in Starbucks’ stated commitment to recognizing the real issues of racial discrimination and being serious about trying to tackle it, and also trying to play a leadership role that others can follow,” Ifill tells NPR. But she warns, “This is part of a very, very long story about African Americans and public accommodations and how we are treated in public spaces. This can’t be a one-off. ”
It won’t be, Schultz has assured the public. And this is where the enormity of the problem we’re asking Starbucks to solve– or any corporate entity, for that matter — comes into sharp relief.
Here’s just one example: The neighborhood where the two men were arrested has the highest racial disparity in pedestrian stops in the city of Philadelphia, according to the ACLU. While the black population of Philadelphia’s Ninth District was only 3%, black pedestrians made up 67% of police stops in 2017, their research found. “Black Philadelphians face daily indignities when they are simply trying to go about their business. This incident shows that black people can’t even ‘wait while black,'” Executive Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania Reggie Shuford said in a statement.
Diversity work means holding a mirror up to a society that polices the behavior of black children starting in pre-school, that systematically denies black adults access to jobs and credit markets, that will shrug off the extra-judicial harassment — including death — of black people whose only crime was driving, walking home or operating in the informal economy. The Starbucks employee who called the police that day lives in a world where black and brown people are always suspects. She must be all kinds of shook these days – why all the fuss now? But for the men, it was just another day inside their skins.
That’s a lot for a coffee chain to unpack.
The general idea is this: racial bias is a complex system of assumptions, privileges and oppressions that has worked its way through every major part of our society. It has endured for hundreds of years because it is only easily seen by those at the ass-end of it. Those of us who bear the brunt of racial bias and oppression every day end up having to not only battle that bias and oppression, but also convince everyone else that it even exists. It is very hard for the majority of the population to see how the everyday businesses, agencies, and organizations that we interact with are perpetrating harmful racial bias, and even harder for the majority of the population to see how they are perpetrating harmful racial bias themselves. It is hard to see how something that can feel like the air you breathe to most, can be the storm you drown in to others.
Despite the enormity of the task, I remain cautiously optimistic. Starbucks has been unusually dedicated to justice and social transformation, and have baked purpose into their business decisions. It’s a dedication that will come in handy now.
Ellen McGirt writes Fortune’s raceAhead, a daily newsletter about race and culture.